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Gold, Frankincense and Myrhh – If You Can Find It

Gold, Frankincense and Myrhh.

Trees that produce frankincense – used in incense and perfumes across the world and a key part of the Christmas story – are declining so dramatically that production of the fragrant resin could be halved over the next 15 years, according to a new study published in the British Ecological Society's Journal of Applied Ecology.

Frankincense is obtained by tapping various species of Boswellia, a tree that grows in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian peninsula. Yet despite its economic importance – incense has been traded internationally for thousands of years – little is known about how tapping affects Boswellia populations.

Working in an isolated part of north-west Ethiopia near the source of the Blue Nile the team, led by Dr Frans Bongers of Wageningen University, studied 13 two-hectare plots, some where trees were tapped for frankincense and some where they were untapped. Over two years, they monitored survival, growth and seed production of more than 6,000 Boswellia trees, collecting over 20,000 individual measurements.

They then used this data to construct demographic models capable of predicting the fate of Boswellia populations in coming years. Alarmingly, the model shows Boswellia populations are declining so dramatically that frankincense production could be halved in the next 15 years.

According to Dr Bongers: "Current management of Boswellia populations is clearly unsustainable. Our models show that within 50 years populations of Boswellia will be decimated, and the declining populations mean frankincense production is doomed. This is a rather alarming message for the incense industry and conservation organisations."

"Frankincense extraction is unlikely to be the main cause of population decline, which is likely to be caused by burning, grazing and attack by the long-horn beetle, which lays its eggs under the bark of the tree," says Dr Bongers.

He says strong and far-reaching management incentives need to be introduced if Boswellia populations – and future frankincense production – are to be preserved.

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